The Tribulations of Embodiment; or Body Image in Yoga

This Mental Health Awareness Week is focused on Body Image and I have to admit I was going to ignore this theme and just focus on mental health in general. Unfortunately this is a problem that I struggle with a lot and some old toxic habits have reared their ugly head recently.. So it all just felt a bit raw and I was going to steer well clear of it.

But then suddenly yesterday I realised that instead of staying stuck in my own emotional quagmire, I could zoom out a little and look at the big picture, and examine it through the yogic lens. It would seem obvious that yoga and the body go hand in hand, and I’m sure there will be plenty of articles this week about the rise of instayogis and idealised imagery that we are supposed to live up to and expensive leggings we’re supposed to buy and how damaging that is to mental health…. That’s fine but I’m more interested in what yoga philosophy can tell us about the meaning of the body, what are the implications of being embodied and how the physical aspect is only one part of our experience.

Society’s love affair with the body

We are bombarded all the time with images of idealised, impossible to achieve (or maintain) physical standards, which, as visual creatures, we can’t help but fall in love with. Economically speaking, these are very useful – they drive the massive industries of fitness, beauty, fashion, even the food and drink industries. (charcoal smoothie, superfood salad, anyone?) It would be useful for us to remember that these have no bearing on reality and frankly should have nothing to do with our own self-esteem. Or you could call for more regulation of advertising and stuff.. But actually I don’t think that is going to happen anytime soon simply because the way our society is driven by this carrot and stick game of chasing after perfection and buying stuff to make that happen.

Even more than that, we are hard-wired to glorify a physically attractive body. From a survival perspective, a healthy, strong, virile body is what will keep the human race alive. Clearly it was the more fanciable cavemen and women who propagated and here we are, our very survival instinct tells us to go after attractive specimens of humanity (and by return, to try and BE one of them so that we will survive).

Even though humanity is far from the danger of extinction, this impulse is deep inside and we can’t resist it. But now, the ideal of beauty changes depending on what’s going on in society – during times of plenty being skinny is the thing, during times of lack a lovely juicy big bottom is desirable.

Isn’t it interesting how our standards of beauty change all the time? It’s funny how we don’t notice how arbitrary it is.

Body Image and Self-Worth

Humans are social animals and subscribing to these random rules of beauty (big eyebrows this year, glossy lips last year) is one of the ways that we bond ourselves as a clan. When we try to live up to these standards we are really striving after a sense of belonging – of survival, of love. For that reason, ideals of physical beauty are always going to be a part of the human narrative and the way our society works. What makes this relevant to mental health awareness week and why the real problems begin is when the judgement of our physical bodies spills over onto the rest of ourselves. It becomes about more than shedding a couple of pounds, and more like – ‘because my body doesn’t look a certain way, I am a bad person’.

As we’ll see later (in the yoga part of this blog) – the body and mind are interwoven completely, one could say that they are expressions of each other.. And yet – based on everything we’ve just said, surely it seems crazy that we would judge our validity as a human being on something as arbitrary as a form of physical beauty?

Not only that, but it works in the opposite direction as well. When you are feeling bad about yourself emotionally and mentally, it can express itself through physical self-loathing. My own issues of body image and disordered eating flare up not when my body is not looking right (whatever that may mean) but rather when something else is going badly in my emotional life.

This is, I suppose, what body dysmorphia is all about. No wonder we look at our own bodies and see not just skin, muscle, blood, pulsating life – but a catalogue of places where we don’t measure up. Not only do we have unrealistic standards projected all around us that we can’t resist the urge to try and live up to, for evolutionary and instinctual reasons, but because of the complexity of our human emotions, our self-worth becomes entangled in this value system, and manipulating the way our body looks becomes a way of controlling the way we feel and how we cope with the world.

So, can yoga help with all of this??

The body-mind-spirit discipline of yoga is an excellent tool to tackle this massive problem. And indeed, a lot of the insight and self-awareness I have now has come to me through yoga practice and conversations we have in this world.
However, yogis are still people and we are still participating in modern society and unfortunately the yoga world is not immune to beauty standards and practices of judgement..

Unfortunately I’m sure many people come to the practice in order to change the way their bodies look  – and on a bad day I also do this. “Ohmygod I haven’t practised today but I ate that extra thing, how am I going to burn it off” (How awful that looks written down but unfortunately that sh&t is in my head).

Fortunately the yoga world is actually holding a fairly useful dialogue, inspired by ladies like Jessamyn Stanley, about the ridiculousness of the idealised yoga body which is invariably white, skinny, blonde and wrapped in overpriced leggings.

However in yoga there’s another danger – one of the ways the practice has helped me battle my own issues is that I started focusing on how fun it was that I could do the postures, rather than how my body looked. I realise more and more that this is another form of toxic judgement – we shouldn’t have to be able to touch our toes in order to be a valid person.

Again, people are talking about this more and more – but I think that in order to get to the heart of the problem we need to go deeper.

Yoga’s view of the Body

Historically, yogis saw the body as something abhorrent, an obstacle to the spiritual path. The Maitrayaniya Upanishad refers to the “ill-smelling, unsubstantial body which is nothing but a conglomerate of bone, skin, sinew, muscle, marrow, flesh, semen, blood, mucus, tears, rheum, feces, urine, wind, bile, and phlegm – what good is the enjoyment of desires?” and it wasn’t until Tantric times that the body was seen as a spiritual vehicle, and expression of the divine. By the time Hatha yoga was being practised, the body was seen as an instrument which could be fine-tuned in order to experience enlightenment as a full-body event.

This understanding was based on the view of the body laid out in the Upanishads of the self made up of five ’sheaths’  which constitute our body, mind, and soul:
Annamaya kosha – the physical body
Pranamaya kosha – the energetic body
Manomaya kosha – the mental/emotional body
Vijnyanamaya kosha – the intellectual body
Anandamaya kosha – the bliss body

Far from denying the importance of the body, this system explains how you can’t get anywhere without it – and how necessarily interrelated the levels of our being are. Then we are given a map to work gradually from the visible and tangible physical self towards the subtlest level of being, pure consciousness.

The tantras describe how the beginning of any action is the first impulse of will (iccha-shakti), which is wrapped around by knowledge, (jnana-shakti) and finally takes form as action (kriya-shakti). This process describes the divine acts of god and nature – but the same principle takes place in our own bodies. Any action that we take must necessarily begin with an impulse of will. First an idea or an external trigger causes ripples in our nervous system > we respond to this with emotion or sensation > a movement arises in response > the body creates tissues around the movement, so that our actions and habits are cemented by our fascia, muscle and bone.

In this way our bodies are literally an embodiment of our thoughts, practically speaking – concrete forms made of the way we live. Whether our actions are eating cookies so we lay down some extra adipose tissue, or practising yin yoga so our fascia is lengthened, or running marathons so our heart is strong, or carrying our bag on our left side so our shoulder is droopy, or working a stressful job so we have high cortisol levels, or texting a lot so our thumbs are very dextrous, everything we do makes us how we are. When my students bemoan tightnesses in their bodies I say – but these are just souvenirs from life. Your body is literally what you do and where you have been made tangible in the form of flesh.

For that reason, then, our bodies are mutable – if we can change the way we live, then we can change the way our bodies are – on an individual scale, and as a society. After all we saw above how the ideals of beauty change depending on the cultural and economic values of a society..

This constantly adaptable and responsive physical entity is what the Bhagavad Gita calls the Field of Action (kurukshetra). Our embodied self is where spirit takes form, and the way that consciousness (whether you think of it as a universal spirit, or the individual soul), experiences the world.
All of our senses, nervous system, the ability to move, speak, pick things up and put them down – all of these are our spiritual tools to explore the world and interact with the people and things within it.

“AS a man casts off his worn-out clothes
And takes on other new ones in their place
So does the embodied soul cast off his worn-out bodies
And enters others new.”
BG II.22

If our bodies form around the way we live, then it means they are exactly the way we need them to be for us to learn the lessons that life has to teach us. Things that present a challenge to me might be easy for you, simply because our experience and our knowledge are different because of where we’ve been. Similarly our bodies all respond to the yoga postures in different ways, depending on our genes, our lifestyles, all of our actions.

Through our bodies, then, we can open ourselves up, always learning, on own personalised route back to peace.

Despite what the early yogis might have said, we necessarily are existing in the world.  Donna Farhi says “Where else but the body can we experience consciousness? We have to go through the body, we cannot go around it”.

“The liberation that is attainable by the shedding of the body – is that liberation not worthless? Just as rock-salt is dissolved in water, so the Absolute (brahmatva) extends to the body of the enlightened yogin.” –

How to be embodied

Yoga is a practice of witnessing, so let’s witness.  To practice mindfulness is to see things as they are. And the closer we look at the body, maybe by studying anatomy, maybe by practising asana, maybe just by paying attention to the way our bodies are created by our living, the more we realise there is nothing to be upset about. As Michael Stone said, “You can know the body as a body – the more intimate you are with the breath the less personal it is.”

We are embodied –  and that’s great! But we need to zoom out a little and notice the big picture.  Body image is not going to be sorted by thinking positively, ‘I’m beautiful’ or ‘I’m ugly’ .
The more we pass judgement (negative OR positive) on our own and each other’s bodies, the more we get caught up in the game.
What happens to me is I get drawn into the body-fixing trap, eat less, overexercise – get into shape, and feel good. Oh, nice! I feel like everything is okay… until another bad day and suddenly my body image is all skewed again (because after all it doesn’t really depend on how you look) .

Buddha found when he practised asceticism that there was no limit to the attempt to purge ourselves physically.. This kind of war with our body will only end when we die.
Zen Mind, Beginners Mind – Shunryu Suzuki

What we really need to do is change our perspective on the whole thing – zoom out, and understand what the body really is – an expression of the ALIVENESS of nature.
If we can all realise that, just like the clouds or earth, like birdsong or the beating of the heart, our bodies are beautiful simply because they ARE.

the constancy of change and rebirth of spring

We just had Easter and I have come to realise that for me, it far outstrips Christmas as far as holidays go. This time of year brings lovely lambs, warmer weather (if we’re lucky in Scotland- thankfully this year we are, yipee!) , pink blossoms burgeoning on the trees, not to mention some excellent sweet treats (vegan creme egg, anyone?)

I inevitably started reflecting on why Easter is so much nicer – not only is it less In Your Face than Christmas and obviously has more pleasant weather.. but there is a deeper optimism at the heart of the holiday that celebrates the turning of the seasons, the greater scheme of the Natural order.

the Wheel of the Year

©Katonah Yoga, illustration by Susan Fierro

Sometimes at the end of winter it drags on so long (especially in the delightful climates that I have lived in..ahem Scotland..ahem Russia) that we forget what sunshine feels like. Wrapping up in scarf and hat still at the end of March it’s easy to get frustrated – but really we should trust in the cycles of nature, and know that no matter how cold it is now, it will change. Spring and Easter time are the reminder that we will emerge from the darkness.

The Dark Side of the Moon

Tao Te Ching, 2

The thing is, in order for Spring to come, we have to go through the darkness and grimness of Winter. If Christianity is your bag – the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection can only take place because he died and descended into hell..
There can be no light without darkness and we cannot emerge, sparkling into the daylight, without spending time in the stillness of the night. Our world is so go-go-go, we tend to forget the importance of pausing to reflect, of letting go, of confronting the darkness so that we can release it and come full circle into the light.

The turning wheel of the year should reassure us that it’s ok to spend some time in the dark, that the light will always come to follow.

In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna reminds us that the circular pattern of nature applies to us also and this is why we should trust and have no fear:

For certain is death for the born and certain is birth for the dead; therefore, over the inevitable thou shouldst not grieve. Bhagavad Gita – 2.27

be Reborn every moment

the cycles of the ages (Yugas)

The cycles of nature are so powerful that they permeate the world at every level – according to Hindu philosophy the world goes through a cycle of yugas (ages) – currently we are in the darkest of the ages, Kali Yuga. Typical!
Zoom in and there are the orbits of the planets; the cycles of the seasons, and ever 24 hours day moving through night.
These same cycles happen on a micro scale within our own bodies. Our tissues are constantly renewing themselves; women obviously go through moon cycles, and everyone has their circadian (Latin, circa, around; diem, day) rhythms – the waking- sleeping cycle. Then we have the ultradian rhythms, the cycles that repeat throughout one day – blood circulation, pulse, heart rate, left/right nostril dominance, hormone secretion.
Zoom in even more and on average 15 times every minute we go through the most familiar cycle – of the inhale and exhale.

If you let your attention rest on the breath and instead of thinking ‘OK now I’m inhaling, now I’m exhaling’, focus on the sensations of the breathing cycle itself, you start to notice that the end of the exhale has the seed of the inhale within it, the exhale inevitably transforms itself into the inhale. Just like Krishna said, everything that dies must be reborn – or as it’s expressed in the Tao te Ching, being originates from non-being.

Tao te Ching of Lao-Tzu, translated by Stephen Addiss & Stanley Lombardo

When you realise that your being is going through this constant flux, it becomes a wonderful opportunity to practise being fresh in every moment.
Each exhale is the chance to get rid of something and to reboot yourself. We can’t always go on living through the same patterns and habits, sometimes it is necessary to ‘die’ to what is familiar and comfortable, in order to experience a rebirth that allows us to open our eyes to what’s really in front of us. We have to get rid of the old to make space for the new, just ask Marie Kondo..
This means that no matter what is going on, we always have an amazing refresh button that we can hit to reset our nervous system and find a blank slate.


by holding your breath, you lose it – by letting go, you find it

Mutability is our tragedy, but it’s also our hope

This is an invitation, then, inspired by the rebirth of nature and the blossoming of the trees which never fails to delight us every year as if we were seeing it for the first time, to zoom out.

As long as we keep breathing, the cycles will keep turning.

All we have to do is be like dancing Shiva, at the centre of the wheel of fire, and keep our hearts still as everything fluctuates and spins and transforms itself around us.

Breathe in, Breathe out, be constantly reborn and therefore eternal.

New Year, Same Old Me

Why new year’s resolutions deepen avidya (ignorance)

New year, New you!
So, as January is ticking along – how are your new year’s resolutions going?

Suddenly on January first, after two weeks (or more!) of treats, tipples, and eating one serving too many of that tasty thing over there, suddenly we’re all transformed into saints who rise at the crack of dawn (ehh, actually it’s still dark – it’s the middle of winter!), eat only green foods, don’t touch a drop of alcohol, a gram of sugar, or a single carbohydrate. Oh yeah and we’re off social media, reading all those books on our list, going to yoga class every day and running 5k every morning too.

With the turning of the year and resetting the clock to zero as we do at midnight on 31st December, it feels like a great opportunity to start afresh, make new goals and allow all of the new year momentum to lift us up to become faster, better, more productive versions of ourselves.

Inevitably we set ourselves all of these lofty targets and find them almost impossible to live up to in the real world.
so – two weeks in, how is it going??

I didn’t make any resolutions per se for the new year, more I thought about intentions for how I’d like to be throughout the coming twelve months. Nothing concrete really, more a general direction that I’d like to orient myself towards – and certainly no shiny new habits that I planned to pick up with the alarm of the Hogmanay bells.

I do tend to suffer from this problem all year round however – yes I’m in the yoga world and yes I’m interested in health and well-being and eating well and productivity. The practice of yoga and meditation and healthy cooking and journaling all help me to live better! However, as I do more and more, I often realise that all of these self-care habits can become a compulsion in themselves – an obsession with self-improvement. At the heart of all of this lies the underlying poisonous idea that on my own I’m not good enough, and need all of these habits to ‘fix’ myself.

Just as you, celebrating the end of year parties and polishing off a scrumptious mince pie, are not good enough and you need to get to the gym, go on a diet, and basically sort yourself out – make a NEW YOU IN 2019!

The idea for this blog came from one of my students who said, “This new year instead of a ‘new me’ I’m staying with the ‘same old me’.” I was struck! Is she enlightened? This is genius!

In our consumerist society self-acceptance is a revolutionary act. When you’re being told 100 times a day that you’re not good enough unless you use this shampoo or drive this car or get this job or wear those shoes, it takes real courage to say, excuse me, no – I’m just fine the way I am.

Why self-improvement is avidya in motion
The Yoga Sutras explain that the root of all misery is avidya – ignorance. Of What? Ignorance is regarding the impermanent as permanent, the impure as pure, the painful as pleasant, and the non-Self as the Self. (YS.2.5)
When we suffer from avidya (as most of us do), we mistakenly believe that our body and mind is our real self – when really these are just the temporary embodied forms of the universal Self of which the whole world and everything consists. Not only that, we are all implanted with the innate belief that we are incomplete and imperfect – which, according to yoga philosophy, is the exact opposite of the truth.

He cannot be cut by sword,
Nor burnt by fire;
The waters cannot wet him,
Nor the wind dry him up.

Uncuttable, unburnable,
Unwettable, undryable
Is he, – eternal, roving everywhere,
Firm-set, unmoving, everlasting.

Bhagavad Gita II.23-24

According to yoga philosophy, we all come from the one universal Self and thither will return – and in the meantime while we are here in our embodied state, our job is simple – to pay attention.
Our consciousness is the universe’s way to become aware of itself

“Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself. Through our ears, the universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence.”

Alan Watts

Hang on Ema, what has all of this got to do with January diets??
A lot!
When we focus all the time on self-improvement, we have no time or energy to become aware of the Divine within ourselves. Our job here on Earth isn’t to lose inches on our waistline or add zeros to our bank balance – our job is to just be in love with the universe and to play our part in the cosmic boogie that is our Dharma.

OK awesome, so I don’t need to do anything then? I can just sit on the sofa and eat maltesers?

Um – no.
We still have work to do, simply because it takes effort to stay awake enough to be aware of the magic of the present moment.
Doing yoga, eating well to keep your body and mind healthy, applying yourself to the work that you love, studying, weaving baskets, collecting Faberge eggs.. anything that fully absorbs you is a way to hone our awareness and our fully present engagement with the world in its luminous immediacy.

Whatever effectively causes one’s submerged consciousness to emerge is suitable for an offering, because it is this emergence of Awareness that is called bliss [ānanda].
Tantraloka 167c-8b

So the moral of the story is – yes, get up early for a run before work, go to yoga, learn a new language, drink your smoothies! And do it not out of self-loathing or because you feel like you could do better, do it as a celebration of the very awesomeness of being alive!

HAPPY 2019 everybody!

The World is Too Big; on perfectionism, disappointment, and chaos.

It’s my birthday next week.
Since I was wee my birthday has always been a big deal for me and even though I’m creeping through my thirties now, I still look forward to it like a small child.

Every year I inevitably make a huge effort to plan the most perfect day ever. This year, even since January, I planned to go to Berlin for the weekend.
Alas the way things have turned out, this is not to be.  
However since I am thankfully not 5 years old but 32 (and 359 days!) instead of getting distraught about my crushed dreams, I have used this as an opportunity to ponder the largeness of the world and how our best laid plans gang aft-a-gley.(to quote our local bard)

I am good at organising things and love to do so – I regularly come up with amazing plans for the perfect occasion and work like a dervish to make it a reality. But what often happens is I fall in love with the idea of my perfect moment, and if for some reason not everything turns out as I planned, I end up crumpled and dismayed.

The human ability to model the future, located in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, is what gives us our advantage over other animals. It helps us avoid danger, make plans, set goals, and make things happen. But what happens when we become too good at picturing the future, and our obsession with our imagined worlds sabotages our life in the real world?

Yoga has a lot to teach us about this. The problem is not exactly the ability to plan and imagine, but rather our emotional attachment to these mental creations.
Two of the obstacles laid out in chapter two of the Yoga Sutras are raga, attachment to pleasure, and dvesha, aversion to pain. Surely, you would think, it’s ok to be attracted to nice stuff and to want to avoid the unpleasant?  The problem is that our ideas about what is good and bad are not always accurate, and our inclinations and aversions can end up controlling us and preventing us from seeing the world as it really is.

Even nice stuff is harmful if we’re too attached – we just want more and more of it. Or, we start to have unrealistically high expectations, and when they are inevitably not met, that bums us out too. (“maybe I’ll go to Berlin next year, sigh..”)

To one of discrimination, everything is painful indeed, due to its consequences: the anxiety and fear over losing what is gained; the resulting impressions left in the mind to create renewed cravings; and the conflict among the activities of the gunas, which control the mind. YS II.15

Our attachments become a trap – they grow out of each other, and the more we have, the less freedom we have to participate in the world in front of us – constantly bummed out that the spectre we conjured up hasn’t delivered on our fickle desires.

The whole practice of yoga is there to help us claw our way out of this snare.
How fresh and how clear the world will suddenly appear, once we can rid ourselves of our attachments! Dispassion to both pain and pleasure, we can bask in the immediacy of pure experience!

Content to take whatever chance may bring his way,
Surmounting all dualities, knowing no envy,
The same in failure and success,
Though working still, [the yogi] is not bound.

Through inner work, meditation, study, some blood, sweat, and tears,  I have started to let go of some of my own attachments. Let me emphasise the ‘start’ part of that – because this is hard. And you have to take it a bit at a time.. At first you tackle the nasty stuff – that’s much easier to get rid of. But when you come to the things you like, suddenly it’s much more difficult.

I can’t help but feel a bit melancholy at the idea of letting go of attachments to my favourite things, my dreams and my plans – and so it’s clear to me that deep down the raga is still working at full force.

However, instead of mourning the loss of what I think I want, which is unlikely to ever allow me to let it go – I’m trying to take a new perspective.

The impulse to organise, plan, control, comes from a deterministic way of seeing the world. Newton thought that the world worked like a clockwork machine, ticking away to its correct rhythm, where, if you knew all the factors, you’d be able to work out exactly what would happen. Similarly if I get the venue, invite all the people, bake all the cakes, make a smashing playlist – everything must turn out perfect, right?

But that’s not how it goes.

There’s a Zen koan called ‘Why can’t the tail pass through’ – A water buffalo passes through a window. The head gets through, the horns get through, the legs gets through, but the tail can’t get through. Why can’t the tail get through?? If everything else can get through how come the tail doesn’t, what is up with that?
Koans are delightfully frustrating puzzles that encourage us to sit with the paradoxes of embodied living. And here it is – even if you put in 100% effort, you don’t quite get the perfect result, there’s always something that you can’t foresee. Even if you try to know everything as well as you possibly can, there’s always going to be something missing..

Chaos theory describes how miniscule, almost undetectable variations can make apparently identical conditions vary wildly over time. Or in other words, there is always going to be a snag that means things don’t turn out just as you planned.

There are too many billions and trillions of factors at play in the world for anything to ever be truly predictable – and because we are mere mortals, there is no way that we can ever know even a small part of them, we simply don’t have enough information.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Prince Arjuna looks over the battlefield and sees that he must fight against his own kinsmen. He protests, arguing (not unreasonably!) that this goes against his morals, his principles, his understanding of the world.
Throughout the Gita the all powerful Krishna explains to Arjuna that there is no way he can actually fathom what is at stake – he must fulfil his dharma and play out his role in the big picture even if he can’t see it. While we worry and fret from our tiny view of things, from the vantage point that spans the whole universe our own concerns are revealed as trivial.

For a thousand ages lasts
One day of Brahma,
And for a thousand ages one such night:
This knowing, men will know what is meant by day and night.

At the day’s dawning all things manifest
Spring forth from the Unmanifest;
And then at nightfall they dissolve again
In that same mystery surnamed ‘Unmanifest’.
BG VIII.17-18

Finally in order to prove his point Krishna reveals his unfathomably huge and multifarious true nature to Arjuna, ‘As One and yet as Manifold, With face turned every way, in many a guise’ – to blow his socks off and let him see just how massive, mindblowing, and huge the world really is – to put his dilemma into perspective.

Every single thing that we think we comprehend conceals within itself unknowable layers of complexity. The mathematical probabilities of the world too multifarious to be calculated by any computer (yet, anyway) – and the myriad ways of experiencing the world through varying perspectives, combinations, moods..

When we stamp our foot and decide, ‘nope, that’s how it’s going to be, and that’s that!’ we take this vast ocean of potentiality that’s out there, and limit it to one tiny possible outcome.

More and more I am starting to see that my over-controlling planning approach is really limiting things for me. Why am I getting upset about one tiny particular version of events not coming to pass when there are so so many other possibilities out there!

How wonderful things might be if I loosen my grip on my attachments, even on the positives.
Surely my puny brain can never come up with anything as marvellous as there is out there in the vastness of the constantly fluctuating universe? By letting go I create space for new and amazing possibilities, instead of squeezing the world into my own constrained itinerary of events.

I think now I’m going to open my mind and my arms and see what the world is going to offer me as a birthday surprise!